Like almost all Americans I am a firm believer in our cherished, constitutionally protected freedom of speech. The courts have always recognized that there are limits to freedom of speech, however, since no freedom is absolute.
For instance, you are not free to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theatre if there is no fire. Why? Because it will cause panic and perhaps injury to innocent people.
It is also true there is no absolute freedom when it comes to obscene speech or material. Hardcore obscenity has never been protected under the First Amendment, as numerous Supreme Court decisions eloquently attest.
Fred Phelps and his fanatical band have been practicing verbal terrorism directed at the grieving families of our brave soldiers. Phelps and his family—who comprise his Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church—have made it sport to picket outside funeral services and at the burials of fallen American soldiers and to mock their service and their deaths in the most cruel and disparaging ways.
For example, this statement is from Phelps' Web site: "As long as the Lord gives us breath, and He continues to kill your G.I. Joe wannabe brat kids, we will still preach at funerals."
Let there be no doubt. This man is not a Southern Baptist, and his "church" is not a Southern Baptist church.
News reports note the Phelps clan's claim to have protested at thousands of events in nearly 500 cities in every state of the union during the last 17 years. As I write this, his Web site indicates his group appeared at seven funerals for U.S. servicemen on October 28 alone.
One cannot begin to imagine the increased pain and suffering that has settled in the hearts of these grieving mothers and fathers, spouses, children and siblings when this lunatic and his followers assault them with crazed speech.
In my opinion, Fred Phelps and his disciples' grotesque assault on these bereft family members is nothing less than verbal pornography and obscenity. It is not, and should not, be protected under the First Amendment. For this group of misguided zealots to do their despicable deeds in the name of God is blasphemous.
In the settlement of a suit brought by the father of a Maryland Marine who died in Iraq, Phelps' group was ordered to pay nearly $11 million in punitive and compensatory damages by a Baltimore jury October 31.
The U.S. District Court ruled correctly in forbidding this behavior and in assessing a significant financial judgment. I am confident the Supreme Court will uphold the lower court's ruling.
It is past time that this maniac is prohibited from causing further pain to the families of our brave soldiers.
Dr. Richard Land is president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention's official entity assigned to address social, moral, and ethical concerns, with particular attention to their impact on American families and their faith.